Hair-raising contest raises money for Turkish earthquake recovery
When people have a mental image of a typical physics class, often the first thought is a Van de Graaf generator that will stand a person’s hair straight up if the generator is touched. This popular physics classroom activity was the hero of a recent fundraiser at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Purdue University. The department held a fundraiser for earthquake recovery in Turkey in combination with the Turkish Student Association at Purdue (Purdue TSA) on April 3, 2023.
About a dozen contestants showed up to put their hands on the Van de Graaf generator’s shiny silver orb to see if their hair would stand up. Approximately 200 people in person and some participating remotely voted for the contestant with the wildest hair at the rate of one dollar per vote. The fundraiser raised $1,460 which was donated to the Purdue TSA to send to Turkey to aid in the recovery from recent devastating earthquakes in their country.
The winner of this year’s Wildest Hair: Turkey Earthquake Recovery Competition is Olive Marangoni. She was at the time an undergraduate sophomore and studies Italian and Aero Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University. She was involved in this competition almost by accident. She bumped into the organizer of the event, Dr. Ephraim Fischbach, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, in the hall outside of the Physics building study library and he thought her hair would present quite well on the Van de Graaf.
“I was leaving the physics help room and Prof. Fischbach asked if I’d like to participate in an experiment. Obviously, I couldn’t say no to that,” says Marangoni. “I enjoyed the event 100%! Really it was just fun to see how wild everybody’s hair was, and Prof. Fischbach wore a wig to participate as well. Everyone had a good time, and we learned something and raised money from it, so I’d say it was a win/win/win.”
The Van de Graaf generator works by sending an electrical current through the body and static electricity builds causing hair to stand up. The contestants stood on a wooden platform and touched the metal orb. Although some hair types are more likely to stand up (dry, straight hair with no products used), everyone touching the orb would experience the electrical sensation and the tiny body hairs on arms and legs would still stand up.
“We had a lot of people trying it out even before the event because it's so fun to do,” says Fischbach. “When people hear about the Van de Graaf generator, everybody wants to come and put their hands on and take pictures. But every so often you get someone like Olive who's got exactly the right combination of hair and length. It also depends on outside factors such weather, humidity and all sorts of other things. But when the conditions are all just right, the effect can be so dramatic.”
This event was dreamt up and organized by Fischbach, who teaches Physics 221, which is a course about electromagnetism and electrostatics. In this course, he has a demonstration of the Van de Graaf generator which is always well received by students. This is where he came up with the idea to do this fundraiser. He had seen the posters from the Purdue TSA saying they were raising funds for the people of Turkey who had just suffered these massive earthquakes. He wondered how people here in America could help.
“The event did what I hoped it would do but even better than I expected. It made me feel very, very good that so many people came together for such a good cause. I got cooperation from everyone I asked. The Turkish students went around the whole campus and put up so many posters to advertise the event. Gary Hudson and Austin Beidelman from the demonstration room did all the setting up and helped throughout. Robin Sipes from administration created a poster and helped take pictures throughout the event. When people heard about the event, they all said, ‘how can I help?’”
He said that he wanted to do this event because his heart went out to the people of Turkey and the students here at Purdue who were trying to help from so far away. He hopes that events like this catch on.
“Dozens of universities in the United States must have this apparatus, which is a very common, inexpensive demonstration. If some of these institutions had a fundraiser for a worthy cause, it would have an amplifying effect. We could use this as a prototype for other worthwhile causes and I am hoping this fundraising model will have a ripple effect,” says Fischbach. “I think everybody feels sympathetic to the people in Turkey, and I am glad we were able to help in some small way from so far away. For us, we used this demonstration, for others, they could do something else if they don’t have the Van de Graaf. You use what you what's available to you. That's one of the things I've done as a scientist when I encounter problems in my research. I say, okay, I'm going to solve this problem. What are my tools? And so here it is, I want to help out the people of Turkey, what are my tools?”
Fischbach anticipates this being an annual fundraising event. Now that he has seen the model is successful, he hopes to build on it year over year. Marangoni will be a junior next year and Fischbach says she’s welcome to participate again next year to defend her title.
With science, people never stop learning new things. Even though Fischbach has been doing this demonstration for years in his classrooms, he says he learned something scientific in the process of this contest. He was loaned a wig, because he says he is “follicly challenged,” but no one expected the wig to work.
“We were wrong in saying that a wig wouldn't work. The wig worked! I went down to the guys in the demo room and they said let's try it out,” he says. “It didn't work really well but if the strands of hair in the wig had even more skin contact, the effect would have been much more dramatic.”
Written by: Cheryl Pierce, Communications Specialist